The practice of the earlier tragedians, to combine all in large masses, and to exhibit repose and motion in distinctly-marked contrast, was carried by him to an unwarrantable extreme. If for the sake of giving animation to the dialogue his predecessors occasionally employed an alternation of single-line speeches, in which question and answer, objection and retort, fly about like arrows from side to side, Euripides makes so immoderate and arbitrary use of this poetical device that very frequently one-half of his lines might be left out without detriment to the sense. At another time he pours himself out in endless speeches, where he sets himself to shew off his rhetorical powers in ingenious arguments, or in pathetic appeals. Many of his scenes have altogether the appearance of a lawsuit, where two persons, as the parties in the litigation, (with sometimes a third for a judge,) do not confine themselves to the matter in hand, but expatiate in a wide field, accusing their adversaries or defending themselves with all the adroitness of practised advocates, and not unfrequently with all the windings and subterfuges of pettifogging sycophants. In this way the poet endeavoured to make his poetry entertaining to the Athenians, by its resemblance to their favourite daily occupation of conducting, deciding, or at least listening to lawsuits. On this account Quinctilian expressly recommends him to the young orator, and with great justice, as capable of furnishing him with more instruction than the older tragedians. But such a recommendation it is evident is little to his credit; for eloquence may, no doubt, have its place in the drama when it is consistent with the character and the object of the supposed speaker, yet to allow rhetoric to usurp the place of the simple and spontaneous expression of the feelings, is anything but poetical.
The style of Euripides is upon the whole too loose, although he has many happy images and ingenious turns: he has neither the dignity and energy of Aeschylus, nor the chaste sweetness of Sophocles. In his expressions he frequently affects the singular and the uncommon, but presently relapses into the ordinary; the tone of the discourse often sounds very familiar, and descends from the elevation of the cothurnus to the level ground. In this respect, as well as in the attempt (which frequently borders only too closely on the ludicrous,) to paint certain characteristic peculiarities, (for instance, the awkward carriage of the Bacchus-stricken Pentheus in his female attire, the gluttony of Hercules, and his boisterous demands on the hospitality of Admetus,) Euripides was a precursor of the new comedy, to which he had an evident inclination, as he frequently paints, under the names of the heroic ages, the men and manners of his own times. Hence Menander expressed a most marked admiration for him, and proclaimed himself his scholar; and we have a fragment of Philemon, which displays such an extravagant admiration, that it hardly appears to have been seriously meant. "If the dead," he either himself says, or makes one of his characters to say, "had indeed any sensation, as some people think they have, I would hang myself for the sake of seeing Euripides."—With this adoration of the later comic authors, the opinion of Aristophanes, his contemporary, forms a striking contrast. Aristophanes persecutes him bitterly and unceasingly; he seems almost ordained to be his perpetual scourge, that none of his moral or poetical extravagances might go unpunished. Although as a comic poet Aristophanes is, generally speaking, in the relation of a parodist to the tragedians, yet he never attacks Sophocles, and even where he lays hold of Aeschylus, on that side of his character which certainly may excite a smile, his reverence for him is still visible, and he takes every opportunity of contrasting his gigantic grandeur with the petty refinements of Euripides. With infinite cleverness and inexhaustible flow of wit, he has exposed the sophistical subtilty, the rhetorical and philosophical pretensions, the immoral and seductive effeminacy, and the excitations to undisguised sensuality of Euripides. As, however, modern critics have generally looked upon Aristophanes as no better than a writer of extravagant and libellous farces, and had no notion of eliciting the serious truths which he veiled beneath his merry disguises, it is no wonder if they have paid but little attention to his opinion.
But with all this we must never forget that Euripides was still a Greek, and the contemporary of many of the greatest names of Greece in politics, philosophy, history, and the fine arts. If, when compared with his predecessors, he must rank far below them, he appears in his turn great when placed by the side of many of the moderns. He has a particular strength in portraying the aberrations of a soul diseased, misguided, and franticly abandoned to its passions. He is admirable where the subject calls chiefly for emotion, and makes no higher requisitions; and he is still more so where pathos and moral beauty are united. Few of his pieces are without passages of the most ravishing beauty. It is by no means my intention to deny him the possession of the most astonishing talents; I have only stated that these talents were not united with a mind in which the austerity of moral principles, and the sanctity of religious feelings, were held in the highest honour.
Comparison between the Choephorae of Aeschylus, the Electra of Sophocles and that of Euripides.
The relation in which Euripides stood to his two great predecessors, may be set in the clearest light by a comparison between their three pieces which we fortunately still possess, on the same subject, namely, the avenging murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes.
The scene of the Choephorae of Aeschylus is laid in front of the royal palace; the tomb of Agamemnon appears on the stage. Orestes appears at the sepulchre, with his faithful Pylades, and opens the play (which is unfortunately somewhat mutilated at the commencement,) with a prayer to Mercury, and with an invocation to his father, in which he promises to avenge him, and to whom he consecrates a lock of his hair. He sees a female train in mourning weeds issuing from the palace, to bring a libation to the grave; and, as he thinks he recognises his sister among them, he steps aside with Pylades in order to observe them unperceived. The chorus, which consists of captive Trojan virgins, in a speech, accompanied with mournful gestures, reveals the occasion of their coming, namely, a fearful dream of Clytemnestra; it adds its own dark forebodings of an impending retribution of the bloody crime, and bewails its lot in being obliged to serve unrighteous masters. Electra demands of the chorus whether she shall fulfil the commission of her hostile mother, or pour out their offerings in silence; and then, in compliance with their advice, she also offers up a prayer to the subterranean Mercury and to the soul of her father, in her own name and that of the absent Orestes, that he may appear as the avenger. While pouring out the offering she joins the chorus in lamentations for the departed hero. Presently, finding a lock of hair resembling her own in colour, and seeing footsteps near the grave she conjectures that her brother has been there, and when she is almost frantic with joy at the thought, Orestes steps forward and discovers himself. He completely overcomes her doubts by exhibiting a garment woven by her own hand: they give themselves up to their joy; he addresses a prayer to Jupiter, and makes known how Apollo, under the most dreadful threats of persecution by his father's Furies, has called on him to destroy the authors of his death in the same manner as they had destroyed him, namely, by guile and cunning. Now follow odes of the chorus and Electra; partly consisting of prayers to her father's shade and the subterranean divinities, and partly recapitulating all the motives for the deed, especially those derived from the death of Agamemnon. Orestes inquires into the vision which induced Clytemnestra to offer the libation, and is informed that she dreamt that she had given her breast to a dragon in her son's cradle, and suckled it with her blood. He hereupon resolves to become this dragon, and announces his intention of stealing into the house, disguised as a stranger, and attacking both her and Aegisthus by surprise. With this view he withdraws along with Pylades. The subject of the next choral hymn is the boundless audacity of mankind in general, and especially of women in the gratification of their unlawful passions, which it confirms by terrible examples from mythic story, and descants upon the avenging justice which is sure to overtake them at last. Orestes, in the guise of a stranger, returns with Pylades, and desires admission into the palace. Clytemnestra comes out, and being informed by him of the death of Orestes, at which tidings Electra assumes a feigned grief, she invites him to enter and partake of their hospitality. After a short prayer of the chorus, the nurse comes and mourns for her foster-child; the chorus inspires her with a hope that he yet lives, and advises her to contrive to bring Aegisthus, for whom Clytemnestra has sent her, not with, but without his body guard. As the critical moment draws near, the chorus proffers prayers to Jupiter and Mercury for the success of the plot. Aegisthus enters into conversation with the messenger: he can hardly allow himself to believe the joyful news of the death of Orestes, and hastens into the house for the purpose of ascertaining the truth, from whence, after a short prayer of the chorus, we hear the cries of the murdered. A servant rushes out, and to warn Clytemnestra gives the alarm at the door of the women's apartment. She hears it, comes forward, and calls for an axe to defend herself; but as Orestes instantaneously rushes on her with the bloody sword, her courage fails her, and, most affectingly, she holds up to him the breast at which she had suckled him. Hesitating in his purpose, he asks the counsel of Pylades, who in a few lines exhorts him by the most cogent reasons to persist; after a brief dialogue of accusation and defence, he pursues her into the house to slay her beside the body of Aegisthus. In a solemn ode the chorus exults in the consummated retribution. The doors of the palace are thrown open, and disclose in the chamber the two dead bodies laid side by side on one bed. Orestes orders the servants to unfold the garment in whose capacious folds his father was muffled when he was slain, that it may be seen by all; the chorus recognise on it the stains of blood, and mourn afresh the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes, feeling his mind already becoming confused, seizes the first moment to justify his acts, and having declared his intention of repairing to Delphi to purify himself from his blood-guiltiness, flies in terror from the furies of his mother, whom the chorus does not perceive, but conceives to be a mere phantom of his imagination, but who, nevertheless, will no longer allow him any repose. The chorus concludes with a reflection on the scene of murder thrice-repeated in the royal palace since the repast of Thyestes.
The scene of the Electra of Sophocles is also laid before the palace, but does not contain the grave of Agamemnon. At break of day Pylades, Orestes, and the guardian slave who had been his preserver on that bloody day, enter the stage as just arriving from a foreign country. The keeper who acts as his guide commences with a description of his native city, and he is answered by Orestes, who recounts the commission given him by Apollo, and the manner in which he intends to carry it into execution, after which the young man puts up a prayer to his domestic gods and to the house of his fathers. Electra is heard complaining within; Orestes is desirous of greeting her without delay, but the old man leads him away to offer a sacrifice at the grave of his father. Electra then appears, and pours out her sorrow in a pathetic address to heaven, and in a prayer to the infernal deities her unconquerable desire of revenge. The chorus, which consists of native virgins, endeavours to console her; and, interchanging hymn and speech with the chorus, Electra discloses her unabatable sorrow, the contumely and oppression under which she suffers, and her hopelessness occasioned by the many delays of Orestes, notwithstanding her frequent exhortations; and she turns a deaf ear to all the grounds of consolation which the chorus can suggest. Chrysothemis, Clytemnestra's younger, more submissive, and favourite daughter, approaches with an offering which she is to carry to the grave of her father. Their difference of sentiment leads to an altercation between the two sisters, during which Chrysothemis informs Electra that Aegisthus, now absent in the country, has determined to adopt the most severe measures with her, whom, however, she sets at defiance. She then learns from her sister that Clytemnestra has had a dream that Agamemnon had come to life again, and had planted his sceptre in the floor of the house, and it had grown up into a tree that overshadowed the whole land; that, alarmed at this vision, she had commissioned Chrysothemis to carry an oblation to his grave. Electra counsels her not to execute the commands of her wicked mother, but to put up a prayer for herself and her sister, and for the return of Orestes as the avenger of his father; she then adds to the oblation her own girdle and a lock of her hair. Chrysothemis goes off, promising obedience to her wishes. The chorus augurs from the dream, that retribution is at hand, and traces back the crimes committed in this house to the primal sin of Pelops. Clytemnestra rebukes her daughter, with whom, however, probably under the influence of the dream, she is milder than usual; she defends her murder of Agamemnon, Electra condemns her for it, but without violent altercation. Upon this Clytemnestra, standing at the altar in front of the house, proffers a prayer to Apollo for health and long life, and a secret one for the death of her son. The guardian of Orestes arrives, and, in the character of a messenger from a Phocian friend, announces the death of Orestes, and minutely enumerates all the circumstances which attended his being killed in a chariot-race at the Pythian games. Clytemnestra, although visited for a moment with a mother's feelings, can scarce conceal her triumphant joy, and invites the messenger to partake of the hospitality of her house. Electra, in touching speeches and hymns, gives herself up to grief; the chorus in vain endeavours to console her. Chrysothemis returns from the grave, full of joy in the assurance that Orestes is near; for she has found his lock of hair, his drink-offering and wreaths of flowers. This serves but to renew the despair of Electra, who recounts to her sister the gloomy tidings which have just arrived, and exhorts her, now that all other hope is at an end, to join with her in the daring deed of putting Aegisthus to death: a proposal which Chrysothemis, not possessing the necessary courage, rejects as foolish, and after a violent altercation she re-enters the house. The chorus bewails Electra, now left utterly desolate. Orestes returns with Pylades and several servants bearing an urn with the pretended ashes of the deceased youth. Electra begs it of them, and laments over it in the most affecting language, which agitates Orestes to such a degree that he can no longer conceal himself; after some preparation he discloses himself to her, and confirms the announcement by producing the seal-ring of their father. She gives vent in speech and song to her unbounded joy, till the old attendant of Orestes comes out and reprimands them both for their want of consideration. Electra with some difficulty recognizes in him the faithful servant to whom she had entrusted the care of Orestes, and expresses her gratitude to him. At the suggestion of the old man, Orestes and Pylades accompany him with all speed into the house, in order to surprise Clytemnestra while she is still alone. Electra offers up a prayer to Apollo in their behalf; the choral ode announces the moment of retribution. From within the house is heard the shrieks of the affrighted Clytemnestra, her short prayer, her cry of agony under the death-blow. Electra from without stimulates Orestes to complete the deed, and he comes out with bloody hands. Warned however by the chorus of the approach of Aegisthus, he hastily re-enters the house in order to take him by surprise. Aegisthus inquires into the story of Orestes' death, and from the ambiguous language of Electra is led to believe that his corpse is in the palace. He commands all the gates to be thrown open, immediately, for the purpose of convincing those of the people who yielded reluctant obedience to his sovereignty, that they had no longer any hopes in Orestes. The middle entrance opens, and discloses in the interior of the palace a body lying on the bed, but closely covered over: Orestes stands beside the body, and invites Aegisthus to uncover it; he suddenly beholds the bloody corpse of Clytemnestra, and concludes himself lost and without hope. He requests to be allowed to speak, but this is prevented by Electra. Orestes constrains him to enter the house, that he may kill him on the very spot where his own father had been murdered.
The scene of the Electra of Euripides is not in Mycenae, in the open country, but on the borders of Argolis, and before a solitary and miserable cottage. The owner, an old peasant, comes out and in a prologue tells the audience how matters stand in the royal house, with this addition, however, to the incidents related in the two plays already considered, that not content to treat Electra with ignominy, and to leave her in a state of celibacy, they had forced her to marry beneath her rank, and to accept of himself for a husband: the motives he assigns for this proceeding are singular enough; he declares, however, that he has too much respect for her to reduce her to the humiliation of becoming in reality his wife.—They live therefore in virgin wedlock. Electra comes forth before it is yet daybreak bearing upon her head, which is close shorn in servile fashion, a pitcher to fetch water: her husband entreats her not to trouble herself with such unaccustomed labours, but she will not be withheld from the discharge of her household duties; and the two depart, he to his work in the field and she upon her errand. Orestes now enters with Pylades, and, in a speech to him, states that he has already sacrificed at his father's grave, but that not daring to enter the city, he wishes to find his sister, who, he is aware, is married and dwells somewhere near on the frontiers, that he may learn from her the posture of affairs. He sees Electra approach with the water-pitcher, and retires. She breaks out into an ode bewailing her own fate and that of her father. Hereupon the chorus, consisting of rustic virgins, makes its appearance, and exhorts her to take a part in a festival of Juno, which she, however, depressed in spirit, pointing to her tattered garments, declines. The chorus offer to supply her with festal ornaments, but she still refuses. She perceives Orestes and Pylades in their hiding-place, takes them for robbers, and hastens to escape into the house; when Orestes steps forward and prevents her, she imagines he intends to murder her; he removes her fears, and gives her assurances that her brother is still alive. On this he inquires into her situation, and the spectators are again treated with a repetition of all the circumstances. Orestes still forbears to disclose himself, and promising merely to carry any message from Electra to her brother, testifies, as a stranger, his sympathy in her situation. The chorus seizes this opportunity of gratifying its curiosity about the fatal events of the city; and Electra, after describing her own misery, depicts the wantonness and arrogance of her mother and Aegisthus, who, she says, leaps in contempt upon Agamemnon's grave, and throws stones at it. The peasant returns from his work, and thinks it rather indecorous in his wife to be gossiping with young men, but when he hears that they have brought news of Orestes, he invites them in a friendly manner into his house. Orestes, on witnessing the behaviour of the worthy man, makes the reflection that the most estimable people are frequently to be found in low stations, and in lowly garb. Electra upbraids her husband for inviting them, knowing as he must that they had nothing in the house to entertain them with; he is of opinion that the strangers will be satisfied with what he has, that a good housewife can always make the most of things, and that they have at least enough for one day. She dispatches him to Orestes' old keeper and preserver who lives hard by them, to bid him come and bring something with him to entertain the strangers, and the peasant departs muttering wise saws about riches and moderation. The chorus bursting out into an ode on the expedition of the Greeks against Troy, describes at great length the figures wrought on the shield which Achilles received from Thetis, and concludes with expressing a wish that Clytemnestra may be punished for her wickedness.
The old guardian, who with no small difficulty ascends the hill towards the house, brings Electra a lamb, a cheese, and a skin of wine; he then begins to weep, not failing of course to wipe his eyes with his tattered garments. In reply to the questions of Electra he states, that at the grave of Agamemnon he found traces of an oblation and a lock of hair; from which circumstance he conjectured that Orestes had been there. We have then an allusion to the means which Aeschylus had employed to bring about the recognition, namely, the resemblance of the hair, the prints of feet, as well as the homespun-robe, with a condemnation of them as insufficient and absurd. The probability of this part of the drama of Aeschylus may, perhaps, admit of being cleared up, at all events one is ready to overlook it; but an express reference like this to another author's treatment of the same subject, is the most annoying interruption and the most fatal to genuine poetry that can possibly be conceived. The guests come out; the old man attentively considers Orestes, recognizes him, and convinces Electra that he is her brother by a scar on his eyebrow, which he received from a fall (this is the superb invention, which he substitutes for that of Aeschylus), Orestes and Electra embrace during a short choral ode, and abandon themselves to their joy. In a long dialogue, Orestes, the old slave, and Electra, form their plans. The old man informs them that Aegisthus is at present in the country sacrificing to the Nymphs, and Orestes resolves to steal there as a guest, and to fall on him by surprise. Clytemnestra, from a dread of unpleasant remarks, has not accompanied him; and Electra undertakes to entice her mother to them by a false message of her being in child-bed. The brother and sister now join in prayers to the gods and their father's shade, for a successful issue of their designs. Electra declares that she will put an end to her existence if they should miscarry, and, for that purpose, she will keep a sword in readiness. The old tutor departs with Orestes to conduct him to Aegisthus, and to repair afterwards to Clytemnestra. The chorus sings of the Golden Ram, which Thyestes, by the assistance of the faithless wife of Atreus, was enabled to carry off from him, and the repast furnished with the flesh of his own children, with which he was punished in return; at the sight of which the sun turned aside from his course; a circumstance, however, which the chorus very sapiently adds, that it was very much inclined to call in question. From a distance is heard a noise of tumult and groans; Electra fears that her brother has been overcome, and is on the point of killing herself. But at the moment a messenger arrives, who gives a long-winded account of the death of Aegisthus, and interlards it with many a joke. Amidst the rejoicings of the chorus, Electra fetches a wreath and crowns her brother, who holds in his hands the head of Aegisthus by the hair. This head she upbraids in a long speech with its follies and crimes, and among other things says to it, it is never well to marry a woman with whom one has previously lived in illicit intercourse; that it is an unseemly thing when a woman obtains the mastery in a family, &c. Clytemnestra is now seen approaching; Orestes begins to have scruples of conscience as to his purpose of murdering a mother, and the authority of the oracle, but yields to the persuasions of Electra, and agrees to do the deed within the house. The queen arrives, drawn in a chariot sumptuously hung with tapestry, and surrounded by Trojan slaves; Electra makes an offer to assist her in alighting, which, however, is declined. Clytemnestra then alleges the sacrifice of Iphigenia as a justification of her own conduct towards Agamemnon, and calls even upon her daughter to state her reasons in condemnation, that an opportunity may be given to the latter of delivering a subtle, captious harangue, in which, among other things, she reproaches her mother with having, during the absence of Agamemnon, sat before her mirror, and studied her toilette too much. With all this Clytemnestra is not provoked, even though her daughter does not hesitate to declare her intention of putting her to death if ever it should be in her power; she makes inquiries about her daughter's supposed confinement, and enters the hut to prepare the necessary sacrifice of purification. Electra accompanies her with a sarcastic speech. On this the chorus begins an ode on retribution: the shrieks of the murdered woman are heard within the house, and the brother and sister come out stained with her blood. They are full of repentance and despair at the deed which they have committed; increase their remorse by repeating the pitiable words and gestures of their dying parent. Orestes determines on flight into foreign lands, while Electra asks, "Who will now take me in marriage?" Castor and Pollux, their uncles, appear in the air, abuse Apollo on account of his oracle, command Orestes, in order to save himself from the Furies, to submit to the sentence of the Areopagus, and conclude with predicting a number of events which are yet to happen to him. They then enjoin a marriage between Electra and Pylades; who are to take her first husband with them to Phocis, and there richly to provide for him. After a further outburst of sorrow, the brother and sister take leave of one another for life, and the piece concludes.
We easily perceive that Aeschylus has viewed the subject in its most terrible aspect, and drawn it within that domain of the gloomy divinities, whose recesses he so loves to haunt. The grave of Agamemnon is the murky gloom from which retributive vengeance issues; his discontented shade, the soul of the whole poem. The obvious external defect, that the action lingers too long at the same point, without any sensible progress, appears, on reflection, a true internal perfection: it is the stillness of expectation before a deep storm or an earthquake. It is true the prayers are repeated, but their very accumulation heightens the impression of a great unheard-of purpose, for which human powers and motives by themselves are insufficient. In the murder of Clytemnestra, and her heart-rending appeals, the poet, without disguising her guilt, has gone to the very verge of what was allowable in awakening our sympathy with her sufferings. The crime which is to be punished is kept in view from the very first by the grave, and, at the conclusion, it is brought still nearer to our minds by the unfolding the fatal garment: thus, Agamemnon non, after being fully avenged, is, as it were, murdered again before the mental eye. The flight of Orestes betrays no undignified weakness or repentance; it is merely the inevitable tribute which he must pay to offended nature.
It is only necessary to notice in general terms the admirable management of the subject by Sophocles. What a beautiful introduction has he made to precede the queen's mission to the grave, with which Aeschylus begins at once! With what polished ornament has he embellished it throughout, for example, with the description of the games! With what nice judgment does he husband the pathos of Electra; first, general lamentations, then hopes derived from the dream, their annihilation by the news of Orestes' death, the new hopes suggested by Chrysothemis only to be rejected, and lastly her mourning over the urn. Electra's heroism is finely set off by the contrast with her more submissive sister. The poet has given quite a new turn to the subject by making Electra the chief object of interest. A noble pair has the poet here given us; the sister endued with unshaken constancy in true and noble sentiments, and the invincible heroism of endurance; the brother prompt and vigorous in all the energy of youth. To this he skilfully opposes circumspection and experience in the old man, while the fact that Sophocles as well as Aeschylus has left Pylades silent, is a proof how carefully ancient art disdained all unnecessary surplusage.
But what more especially characterizes the tragedy of Sophocles, is the heavenly serenity beside a subject so terrific, the fresh air of life and youth which breathes through the whole. The bright divinity of Apollo, who enjoined the deed, seems to shed his influence over it; even the break of day, in the opening scene, is significant. The grave and the world of shadows, are kept in the background: what in Aeschylus is effected by the spirit of the murdered monarch, proceeds here from the heart of the still living Electra, which is endowed with an equal capacity for inextinguishable hatred or ardent love. The disposition to avoid everything dark and ominous, is remarkable even in the very first speech of Orestes, where he says he feels no concern at being thought dead, so long as he knows himself to be alive, and in the full enjoyment of health and strength. He is not beset with misgivings or stings of conscience either before or after the deed, so that the determination is more steadily maintained by Sophocles than in Aeschylus; and the appalling scene with Aegisthus, and the reserving him for an ignominious death to the very close of the piece, is more austere and solemn than anything in the older drama. Clytemnestra's dreams furnish the most striking token of the relation which the two poets bear to each other: both are equally appropriate, significant, and ominous; that of Aeschylus is grander, but appalling to the senses; that of Sophocles, in its very tearfulness, majestically beautiful.
The piece of Euripides is a singular example of poetic, or rather unpoetic obliquity; we should never have done were we to attempt to point out all its absurdities and contradictions. Why, for instance, does Orestes fruitlessly torment his sister by maintaining his incognito so long? The poet too, makes it a light matter to throw aside whatever stands in his way, as in the case of the peasant, of whom, after his departure to summon the old keeper, we have no farther account. Partly for the sake of appearing original, and partly from an idea that to make Orestes kill the king and queen in the middle of their capital would be inconsistent with probability, Euripides has involved himself in still greater improbabilities. Whatever there is of the tragical in his drama is not his own, but belongs either to the fable, to his predecessors, or to tradition. In his hands, at least, it has ceased to be tragedy, but is lowered into "a family picture," in the modern signification of the word. The effect attempted to be produced by the poverty of Electra is pitiful in the extreme; the poet has betrayed his secret in the complacent display which she makes of her misery. All the preparations for the crowning act are marked by levity, and a want of internal conviction: it is a gratuitous torture of our feelings to make Aegisthus display a good- natured hospitality, and Clytemnestra a maternal sympathy with her daughter, merely to excite our compassion in their behalf; the deed is no sooner executed, but its effect is obliterated by the most despicable repentance, a repentance which arises from no moral feeling, but from a merely animal revulsion. I shall say nothing of his abuse of the oracle of Delphi. As it destroys the very basis of the whole drama, I cannot see why Euripides should have written it, except to provide a fortunate marriage for Electra, and to reward the peasant for his continency. I could wish that the wedding of Pylades had been celebrated on the stage, and that a good round sum of money had been paid to the peasant on the spot; then everything would have ended to the satisfaction of the spectators as in an ordinary comedy.
Not, however, to be unjust, I must admit that the Electra is perhaps the very worst of Euripides' pieces. Was it the rage for novelty which led him here into such faults? He was truly to be pitied for having been preceded in the treatment of this same subject by two such men as Sophocles and Aeschylus. But what compelled him to measure his powers with theirs, and to write an Electra at all?
Character of the remaining Works of Euripides—The Satirical Drama— Alexandrian Tragic Poets.
Of the plays of Euripides, which have come down to us in great number, we can only give a very short and general account.
On the score of beautiful morality, there is none of them, perhaps, so deserving of praise as the Alcestis. Her resolution to die, and the farewell which she takes of her husband and children, are depicted with the most overpowering pathos. The poet's forbearance, in not allowing the heroine to speak on her return from the infernal world, lest he might draw aside the mysterious veil which shrouds the condition of the dead, is deserving of high praise. Admetus, it is true, and more especially his father, sink too much in our esteem from their selfish love of life; and Hercules appears, at first, blunt even to rudeness, afterwards more noble and worthy of himself, and at last jovial, when, for the sake of the joke, he introduces to Admetus his veiled wife as a new bride.
Iphigenia in Aulis is a subject peculiarly suited to the tastes and powers of Euripides; the object here is to excite a tender emotion for the innocent and child-like simplicity of the heroine: but Iphigenia is still very far from being an Antigone. Aristotle has already remarked that the character is not well sustained throughout. "Iphigenia imploring," he says, "has no resemblance to Iphigenia afterwards yielding herself up a willing sacrifice."
Ion is also one of his most delightful pieces, on account of the picture of innocence and priestly sanctity in the boy whose name it bears. In the course of the plot, it is true, there are not a few improbabilities, makeshifts, and repetitions; and the catastrophe, produced by a falsehood, in which both gods and men unite against Xuthus, can hardly be satisfactory to our feelings.
As delineations of female passion, and of the aberrations of a mind diseased, Phaedra and Medea have been justly praised. The play in which the former is introduced dazzles us by the sublime and beautiful heroism of Hippolytus; and it is also deserving of the highest commendation on account of the observance of propriety and moral strictness, in so critical a subject. This, however, is not so much the merit of the poet himself as of the delicacy of his contemporaries; for the Hippolytus which we possess, according to the scholiast, is an improvement upon an earlier one, in which there was much that was offensive and reprehensible. [Footnote: The learned and acute Brunck, without citing any authority, or the coincidence of fragments in corroboration, says that Seneca in his Hippolytus, followed the plan of the earlier play of Euripides, called the Veiled Hippolytus. How far this is mere conjecture I cannot say, but at any rate I should be inclined to doubt whether Euripides, even in the censured drama, admitted the scene of the declaration of love, which Racine, however in his Phaedra. has not hesitated to adopt from Seneca.]
The opening of the Medea is admirable; her desperate situation is, by the conversation between her nurse and the keeper of her children, and her own wailings behind the scene, depicted with most touching effect. As soon, however, as she makes her appearance, the poet takes care to cool our emotion by the number of general and commonplace reflections which he puts into her mouth. Lower does she sink in the scene with Aegeus, where, meditating a terrible revenge on Jason, she first secures a place of refuge, and seems almost on the point of bespeaking a new connection. This is very unlike the daring criminal who has reduced the powers of nature to minister to her ungovernable passions, and speeds from land to land like a desolating meteor;—the Medea who, abandoned by all the world, was still sufficient for herself. Nothing but a wish to humour Athenian antiquities could have induced Euripides to adopt this cold interpolation of his story. With this exception he has, in the most vivid colours, painted, in one and the same person, the mighty enchantress, and the woman weak only from the social position of her sex. As it is, we are keenly affected by the struggles of maternal tenderness in the midst of her preparations for the cruel deed. Moreover, she announces her deadly purpose much too soon and too distinctly, instead of brooding awhile over the first confused, dark suggestion of it. When she does put it in execution, her thirst of revenge on Jason might, we should have thought, have been sufficiently slaked by the horrible death of his young wife and her father; and the new motive, namely, that Jason, as she pretends, would infallibly murder the children, and therefore she must anticipate him, will by no means bear examination. For she could as easily have saved the living children with herself, as have carried off their dead bodies in the dragon-chariot. Still this may, perhaps, be justified by the perturbation of mind into which she was plunged by the crime she had perpetrated.
Perhaps it was such pictures of universal sorrow, of the fall of flourishing families and states from the greatest glory to the lowest misery, nay, to entire annihilation, as Euripides has sketched in the Troades, that gained for him, from Aristotle, the title of the most tragic of poets. The concluding scene, where the captive ladies, allotted as slaves to different masters, leave Troy in flames behind them, and proceed towards the ships, is truly grand. It is impossible, however, for a piece to have less action, in the energetical sense of the word: it is a series of situations and events, which have no other connexion than that of a common origin in the capture of Troy, but in no respect have they a common aim. The accumulation of helpless suffering, against which the will and sentiment even are not allowed to revolt, at last wearies us, and exhausts our compassion. The greater the struggle to avert a calamity, the deeper the impression it makes when it bursts forth after all. But when so little concern is shown, as is here the case with Astyanax, for the speech of Talthybius prevents even the slightest attempt to save him, the spectator soon acquiesces in the result. In this way Euripides frequently fails. In the ceaseless demands which this play makes on our compassion, the pathos is not duly economized and brought to a climax: for instance, Andromache's lament over her living son is much more heart- rending than that of Hecuba for her dead one. The effect of the latter is, however, aided by the sight of the little corpse lying on Hector's shield. Indeed, in the composition of this piece the poet has evidently reckoned much on ocular effect: thus, for the sake of contrast with the captive ladies, Helen appears splendidly dressed, Andromache is mounted on a car laden with spoils; and I doubt not but that at the conclusion the entire scene was in flames. The trial of Helen painfully interrupts the train of our sympathies, by an idle altercation which ends in nothing; for in spite of the accusations of Hecuba, Menelaus abides by the resolution which he had previously formed. The defence of Helen is about as entertaining as Isocrates' sophistical eulogium of her.
Euripides was not content with making Hecuba roll in the dust with covered head, and whine a whole piece through; he has also introduced her in another tragedy which bears her name, as the standing representative of suffering and woe. The two actions of this piece, the sacrifice of Polyxena, and the revenge on Polymestor, on account of the murder of Polydorus, have nothing in common with each other but their connexion with Hecuba. The first half possesses great beauties of that particular kind in which Euripides is pre-eminently successful: pictures of tender youth, female innocence, and noble resignation to an early and violent death. A human sacrifice, that triumph of barbarian superstition, is represented as executed, suffered, and looked upon, with that Hellenism of feeling which so early effected the abolition of such sacrifices among the Greeks. But the second half most revoltingly effaces these soft impressions. It is made up of the revengeful artifices of Hecuba, the blind avarice of Polymestor, and the paltry policy of Agamemnon, who, not daring himself to call the Thracian king to account, nevertheless beguiles him into the hands of the captive women. Neither is it very consistent that Hecuba, advanced in years, bereft of strength, and overwhelmed with sorrow, should nevertheless display so much presence of mind in the execution of revenge, and such a command of tongue in her accusation and derision of Polymestor.
We have another example of two distinct and separate actions in the same tragedy, the Mad Hercules. The first is the distress of his family during his absence, and their deliverance by his return; the second, his remorse at having in a sudden frenzy murdered his wife and children. The one action follows, but by no means arises out of the other.
The Phoenissae is rich in tragic incidents, in the common acceptation of the word: the son of Creon, to save his native city, precipitates himself from the walls; Eteocles and Polynices perish by each other's hands; over their dead bodies Jocasta falls by her own hand; the Argives who hare made war upon Thebes are destroyed in battle; Polynices remains uninterred; and lastly, Oedipus and Antigone are driven into exile. After this enumeration of the incidents, the Scholiast aptly notices the arbitrary manner in which the poet has proceeded, "This drama," says he, "is beautiful in theatrical effect, even because it is full of incidents totally foreign to the proper action. Antigone looking down from the walls has nothing to do with the action, and Polynices enters the town under the safe-conduct of a truce, without any effect being thereby produced. After all the rest the banished Oedipus and a wordy ode are tacked on, being equally to no purpose." This is a severe criticism, but it is just.
Not more lenient is the Scholiast on Orestes: "This piece," he says, "is one of those which produce a great effect on the stage, but with respect to characters it is extremely bad; for, with the exception of Pylades, all the rest are good for nothing." Moreover, "Its catastrophe is more suitable to comedy than tragedy." This drama begins, indeed, in the most agitating manner. Orestes, after the murder of his mother, is represented lying on his bed, afflicted with anguish of soul and madness; Electra sits at his feet, and she and the chorus remain in trembling expectation of his awaking. Afterwards, however, everything takes a perverse turn, and ends with the most violent strokes of stage effect.
The Iphigenia in Tauris, in which the fate of Orestes is still further followed out, is less wild and extravagant, but in the representation both of character or passion, it seldom rises above mediocrity. The mutual recognition between brother and sister, after such adventures and actions, as that Iphigenia, who had herself once trembled before the bloody altar, was on the point of devoting her brother to a similar fate, produces no more than a transient emotion. The flight of Orestes and his sister is not highly calculated to excite our interest: the artifice by which Iphigenia brings it about is readily credited by Thoas, who does not attempt to make any opposition till both are safe, and then he is appeased by one of the ordinary divine interpositions. This device has been so used and abused by Euripides, that in nine out of his eighteen tragedies, a divinity descends to unravel the complicated knot.
In Andromache Orestes makes his appearance for the fourth time. The Scholiast, in whose opinion we may, we think, generally recognize the sentiments of the most important of ancient critics, declares this to be a very second-rate play, in which single scenes alone are deserving of any praise. Of those on which Racine has based his free imitations, this is unquestionably the very worst, and therefore the French critics have an easy game to play in their endeavours to depreciate the Grecian predecessor, from whom Racine has in fact derived little more than the first suggestion of his tragedy.
The Bacchae represents the infectious and tumultuous enthusiasm of the worship of Bacchus, with great sensuous power and vividness of conception. The obstinate unbelief of Pentheus, his infatuation, and terrible punishment by the hands of his own mother, form a bold picture. The effect on the stage must have been extraordinary. Imagine, only, a chorus with flying and dishevelled hair and dress, tambourines, cymbals, &c., in their hands, like the Bacchants we see on bas-reliefs, bursting impetuously into the orchestra, and executing their inspired dances amidst tumultuous music,—a circumstance, altogether unusual, as the choral odes were generally sung and danced at a solemn step, and with no other accompaniment than a flute. Here the luxuriance of ornament, which Euripides everywhere affects, was for once appropriate. When, therefore, several of the modern critics assign to this piece a very low rank, they seem to me not to know what they themselves would wish. In the composition of this piece, I cannot help admiring a harmony and unity, which we seldom meet with in Euripides, as well as abstinence from every foreign matter, so that all the motives and effects flow from one source, and concur towards a common end. After the Hippolytus, I should be inclined to assign to this play the first place among all the extant works of Euripides.
The Heraclidae and the Supplices are mere occasional tragedies, i.e., owing their existence to some temporary incident or excitement, and they must have been indebted for their success to nothing else but their flattery of the Athenians. They celebrate two ancient heroic deeds of Athens, on which the panegyrists, amongst the rest Isocrates, who always mixed up the fabulous with the historical, lay astonishing stress: the protection they are said to have afforded to the children of Hercules, the ancestors of the Lacedaemonian kings, from the persecution of Eurystheus, and their going to war with Thebes on behalf of Adrastus, king of Argos, and forcing the Thebans to give the rites of burial to the Seven Chieftains and their host. The Supplices was, as we know, represented during the Peloponnesian war, after the conclusion of a treaty between the Argives and the Lacedaemonians; and was intended to remind the Argives of their ancient obligation to Athens, and to show how little they could hope to prosper in the war against the Athenians. The Heraclidae was undoubtedly written with a similar view in respect to Lacedaemon. Of the two pieces, however, which are both cast in the same mould, the Female Suppliants, so called from the mothers of the fallen heroes, is by far the richest in poetical merit; the Heraclidae appears, as it were, but a faint impression of the other. In the former piece, it is true, Theseus appears at first in a somewhat unamiable light, upbraiding, as he does, the unfortunate Adrastus with his errors at such great length, and perhaps with so little justice, before he condescends to assist him; again the disputation between Theseus and the Argive herald, as to the superiority of a monarchical or a democratical constitution, ought in justice to be banished from the stage to the rhetorical schools; while the moral eulogium of Adrastus over the fallen heroes is, at least, very much out of place. I am convinced that Euripides was here drawing the characters of particular Athenian generals, who had fallen in some battle or other. But even in this case the passage cannot be justified in a dramatic point of view; however, without such an object, it would have been silly and ridiculous in describing those heroes of the age of Hercules, (a Capaneus, for instance, who set even heaven itself at defiance,) to have launched out into the praise of their civic virtues. How apt Euripides was to wander from his subject in allusions to perfectly extraneous matters, and sometimes even to himself, we may see from a speech of Adrastus, who most impertinently is made to say, "It is not fair that the poet, while he delights others with his works, should himself suffer inconvenience." However, the funeral lamentations and the swan-like song of Evadne are affectingly beautiful, although she is so unexpectedly introduced into the drama. Literally, indeed, may we say of her, that she jumps into the play, for without even being mentioned before she suddenly appears first of all on the rock, from which she throws herself on the burning pile of Capaneus.
The Heraclidae is a very poor piece; its conclusion is singularly bald. We hear nothing more of the self-sacrifice of Macaria, after it is over: as the determination seems to have cost herself no struggle, it makes as little impression upon others. The Athenian king, Demophon, does not return again; neither does Iolaus, the companion of Hercules and guardian of his children, whose youth is so wonderfully renewed. Hyllus, the noble-minded Heraclide, never even makes his appearance; and nobody at last remains but Alcmene, who keeps up a bitter altercation with Eurystheus. Euripides seems to have taken a particular pleasure in drawing such implacable and rancorous old women: twice has he exhibited Hecuba in this light, pitting her against Helen and Polymestor. In general, we may observe the constant recurrence of the same artifice and motives is a sure symptom of mannerism. We have in the works of this poet three instances of women offered in sacrifice, which are moving from their perfect resignation: Iphigenia, Polyxena, and Macaria; the voluntary deaths of Alceste and Evadne belong in some sort also to this class. Suppliants are in like manner a favourite subject with him, because they oppress the spectator with apprehension lest they should be torn by force from the sanctuary of the altar. I have already noticed his lavish introduction of deities towards the conclusion.
The merriest of all tragedies is Helen, a marvellous drama, full of wonderful adventures and appearances, which are evidently better suited to comedy. The invention on which it is founded is, that Helen remained concealed in Egypt (so far went the assertion of the Aegyptian priests), while Paris carried off an airy phantom in her likeness, for which the Greeks and Trojans fought for ten long years. By this contrivance the virtue of the heroine is saved, and Menelaus, (to make good the ridicule of Aristophanes on the beggary of Euripides' heroes,) appears in rags as a beggar, and in nowise dissatisfied with his condition. But this manner of improving mythology bears a resemblance to the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights.
Modern philologists have dedicated voluminous treatises, to prove the spuriousness of Rhesus, the subject of which is taken from the eleventh book of the Iliad. Their opinion is, that the piece contains such a number of improbabilities and contradictions, that it is altogether unworthy of Euripides. But this is by no means a legitimate conclusion. Do not the faults which they censure unavoidably follow from the selection of an intractable subject, so very inconvenient as a nightly enterprise? The question respecting the genuineness of any work, turns not so much on its merits or demerits, as rather on the resemblance of its style and peculiarities to those of the pretended author. The few words of the Scholiast amount to a very different opinion: "Some have considered this drama to be spurious, and not the work of Euripides, because it bears many traces of the style of Sophocles. But it is inscribed in the Didascaliae as his, and its accuracy with respect to the phenomena of the starry heaven betrays the hand of Euripides." I think I understand what is here meant by the style of Sophocles, but it is rather in detached scenes, than in the general plan, that I at all discern it. Hence, if the piece is to be taken from Euripides, I should be disposed to attribute it to some eclectic imitator, but one of the school of Sophocles rather than of that of Euripides, and who lived only a little later than both. This I infer from the familiarity of many of the scenes, for tragedy at this time was fast sinking into the domestic tragedy, whereas, at a still later period, the Alexandrian age, it fell into an opposite error of bombast.
The Cyclops is a satiric drama. This is a mixed and lower species of tragic poetry, as we have already in passing asserted. The want of some relaxation for the mind, after the engrossing severity of tragedy, appears to have given rise to the satiric drama, as indeed to the after-piece in general. The satiric drama never possessed an independent existence; it was thrown in by way of an appendage to several tragedies, and to judge from that we know of it, was always considerably shorter than the others. In external form it resembled Tragedy, and the materials were in like manner mythological. The distinctive mark was a chorus consisting of satyrs, who accompanied with lively songs, gestures, and movements, such heroic adventures as were of a more cheerful hue, (many in the Odyssey for instance; for here, also, as in many other respects, the germ is to be found in Homer,) or, at least, could be made to wear such an appearance. The proximate cause of this species of drama was derived from the festivals of Bacchus, where satyr-masks was a common disguise. In mythological stories with which Bacchus had no concern, these constant attendants of his were, no doubt, in some sort arbitrarily introduced, but still not without a degree of propriety. As nature, in her original freedom, appeared to the fancy of the Greeks to teem everywhere with wonderful productions, they could with propriety people with these sylvan beings the wild landscapes, remote from polished cities, where the scene was usually laid, and enliven them with their wild animal frolics. The composition of demi-god with demi-beast formed an amusing contrast. We have an example in the Cyclops of the manner in which the poets proceeded in such subjects. It is not unentertaining, though the subject- matter is for the most part contained in the Odyssey; only the pranks of Silenus and his band are occasionally a little coarse. We must confess that, in our eyes, the great merit of this piece is its rarity, being the only extant specimen of its class which we possess. In the satiric dramas Aeschylus must, without doubt, have displayed more boldness and meaning in his mirth; as, for instance, when he introduced Prometheus bringing down fire from heaven to rude and stupid man; while Sophocles, to judge from the few fragments we have, must have been more elegant and moral, as when he introduced the goddesses contending for the prize of beauty, or Nausicaa offering protection to the shipwrecked Ulysses. It is a striking feature of the easy unconstrained character of life among the Greeks, of its gladsome joyousness of disposition, which knew nothing of a starched and stately dignity, but artist-like admired aptness and gracefulness, even in the most insignificant trifles, that in this drama called Nausicaa, or "The Washerwomen," in which, after Homer, the princess at the end of the washing, amuses herself at a game of ball with her maids, Sophocles himself played at ball, and by his grace in this exercise acquired much applause. The great poet, the respected Athenian citizen, the man who had already perhaps been a General, appeared publicly in woman's clothes, and as, on account of the feebleness of his voice, he could not play the leading part of Nausicaa, took perhaps the mute under part of a maid, for the sake of giving to the representation of his piece the slight ornament of bodily agility.
The history of ancient tragedy ends with Euripides, although there were a number of still later tragedians; Agathon, for instance, whom Aristophanes describes as fragrant with ointment and crowned with flowers, and in whose mouth Plato, in his Symposium, puts a discourse in the taste of the sophist Gorgias, full of the most exquisite ornaments and empty tautological antitheses. He was the first to abandon mythology, as furnishing the natural materials of tragedy, and occasionally wrote pieces with purely fictitious names, (this is worthy of notice, as forming a transition towards the new comedy,) one of which was called the Flower, and was probably therefore neither seriously affecting nor terrible, but in the style of the idyl, and pleasing.
The Alexandrian scholars, among their other lucubrations, attempted also the composition of tragedies; but if we are to judge of them from the only piece which has come down to us, the Alexandra of Lycophron, which consists of an endless monologue, full of prophecy, and overladen with obscure mythology, these productions of a subtle dilettantism must have been extremely inanimate and untheatrical, and every way devoid of interest. The creative powers of the Greeks were, in this department, so completely exhausted, that they were forced to content themselves with the repetition of the works of their ancient masters.
The Old Comedy proved to be completely a contrast to Tragedy—Parody— Ideality of Comedy the reverse of that of Tragedy—Mirthful Caprice— Allegoric and Political Signification—The Chorus and its Parabases.
We now leave Tragic Poetry to occupy ourselves with an entirely opposite species, the Old Comedy. Striking as this diversity is, we shall, however, commence with pointing out a certain symmetry in the contrast and certain relations between them, which have a tendency to exhibit the essential character of both in a clearer light. In forming a judgment of the Old Comedy, we must banish every idea of what is called Comedy by the moderns, and what went by the same name among the Greeks themselves at a later period. These two species of Comedy differ from each other, not only in accidental peculiarities, (such as the introduction in the old of real names and characters,) but essentially and diametrically. We must also guard against entertaining such a notion of the Old Comedy as would lead us to regard it as the rude beginnings of the more finished and cultivated comedy of a subsequent age [Footnote: This is the purport of the section of Barthelemy in the Anacharsis on the Old Comedy: one of the poorest and most erroneous parts of his work. With the pitiful presumption of ignorance, Voltaire pronounced a sweeping condemnation of Aristophanes, (in other places, and in his Philosophical Dictionary under Art. Athee), and the modern French critics have for the most part followed his example. We may, however, find the foundation of all the erroneous opinions of the moderns on this subject, and the same prosaical mode of viewing it, in Plutarch's parallel between Aristophanes and Menander.], an idea which many, from the unbridled licentiousness of the old comic writers, have been led to entertain. On the contrary the former is the genuine poetic species; but the New Comedy, as I shall show in due course, is its decline into prose and reality.
We shall form the best idea of the Old Comedy, by considering it as the direct opposite of Tragedy. This was probably the meaning of the assertion of Socrates, which is given by Plato towards the end of his Symposium. He tells us that, after the other guests were dispersed or had fallen asleep, Socrates was left awake with Aristophanes and Agathon, and that while he drank with them out of a large cup, he forced them to confess, however unwillingly, that it is the business of one and the same man to be equally master of tragic and comic composition, and that the tragic poet is, in virtue of his art, comic poet also. This was not only repugnant to the general opinion, which wholly separated the two kinds of talent, but also to all experience, inasmuch as no tragic poet had ever attempted to shine in Comedy, nor conversely; his remark, therefore, can only have been meant to apply to the inmost essence of the things. Thus at another time, the Platonic Socrates says, on the subject of comic imitation: "All opposites can be fully understood only by and through each other; consequently we can only know what is serious by knowing also what is laughable and ludicrous." If the divine Plato by working out that dialogue had been pleased to communicate his own, or his master's thoughts, respecting these two kinds of poetry, we should have been spared the necessity of the following investigation.
One aspect of the relation of comic to tragic poetry may be comprehended under the idea of parody. This parody, however, is one infinitely more powerful than that of the mock heroic poem, as the subject parodied, by means of scenic representation, acquired quite another kind of reality and presence in the mind, from what the epopee did, which relating the transactions of a distant age, retired, as it were, with them into the remote olden time. The comic parody was brought out when the thing parodied was fresh in recollection, and as the representation took place on the same stage where the spectators were accustomed to see its serious original, this circumstance must have greatly contributed to heighten the effect of it. Moreover, not merely single scenes, but the very form of tragic composition was parodied, and doubtless the parody extended not only to the poetry, but also to the music and dancing, to the acting itself, and the scenic decoration. Nay, even where the drama trod in the footsteps of the plastic arts, it was still the subject of comic parody, as the ideal figures of deities were evidently transformed into caricatures [Footnote: As an example of this, I may allude to the well- known vase-figures, where Mercury and Jupiter, about to ascend by a ladder into Alcmene's chamber, are represented as comic masks.]. Now the more immediately the productions of all these arts fall within the observance of the external senses, and, above, all the more the Greeks, in their popular festivals, religious ceremonies, and solemn processions, were accustomed to, and familiar with, the noble style which was the native element of tragic representation, so much the more irresistibly ludicrous must have been the effect of that general parody of the arts, which it was the object of Comedy to exhibit.
But this idea does not exhaust the essential character of Comedy; for parody always supposes a reference to the subject which is parodied, and a necessary dependence on it. The Old Comedy, however, as a species of poetry, is as independent and original as Tragedy itself; it stands on the same elevation with it, that is, it extends just as far beyond the limits of reality into the domains of free creative fancy.
Tragedy is the highest earnestness of poetry; Comedy altogether sportive. Now earnestness, as I observed in the Introduction, consists in the direction of the mental powers to an aim or purpose, and the limitation of their activity to that object. Its opposite, therefore, consists in the apparent want of aim, and freedom from all restraint in the exercise of the mental powers; and it is therefore the more perfect, the more unreservedly it goes to work, and the more lively the appearance there is of purposeless fun and unrestrained caprice. Wit and raillery may be employed in a sportive manner, but they are also both of them compatible with the severest earnestness, as is proved by the example of the later Roman satires and the ancient Iambic poetry of the Greeks, where these means were employed for the expression of indignation and hatred.
The New Comedy, it is true, represents what is amusing in character, and in the contrast of situations and combinations; and it is the more comic the more it is distinguished by a want of aim: cross purposes, mistakes, the vain efforts of ridiculous passion, and especially if all this ends at last in nothing; but still, with all this mirth, the form of the representation itself is serious, and regularly tied down to a certain aim. In the Old Comedy the form was sportive, and a seeming aimlessness reigned throughout; the whole poem was one big jest, which again contained within itself a world of separate jests, of which each occupied its own place, without appearing to trouble itself about the rest. In tragedy, if I may be allowed to make my meaning plain by a comparison, the monarchical constitution prevails, but a monarchy without despotism, such as it was in the heroic times of the Greeks: everything yields a willing obedience to the dignity of the heroic sceptre. Comedy, on the other hand, is the democracy of poetry, and is more inclined even to the confusion of anarchy than to any circumscription of the general liberty of its mental powers and purposes, and even of its separate thoughts, sallies, and allusions.
Whatever is dignified, noble, and grand in human nature, admits only of a serious and earnest representation; for whoever attempts to represent it, feels himself, as it were, in the presence of a superior being, and is consequently awed and restrained by it. The comic poet, therefore, must divest his characters of all such qualities; he must place himself without the sphere of them; nay, even deny altogether their existence, and form an ideal of human nature the direct opposite of that of the tragedians, namely, as the odious and base. But as the tragic ideal is not a collective model of all possible virtues, so neither does this converse ideality consist in an aggregation, nowhere to be found in real life, of all moral enormities and marks of degeneracy, but rather in a dependence on the animal part of human nature, in that want of freedom and independence, that want of coherence, those inconsistencies of the inward man, in which all folly and infatuation originate.
The earnest ideal consists of the unity and harmonious blending of the sensual man with the mental, such as may be most clearly recognised in Sculpture, where the perfection of form is merely a symbol of mental perfection and the loftiest moral ideas, and where the body is wholly pervaded by soul, and spiritualized even to a glorious transfiguration. The merry or ludicrous ideal, on the other hand, consists in the perfect harmony and unison of the higher part of our nature with the animal as the ruling principle. Reason and understanding are represented as the voluntary slaves of the senses. Hence we shall find that the very principle of Comedy necessarily occasioned that which in Aristophanes has given so much offence; namely, his frequent allusions to the base necessities of the body, the wanton pictures of animal desire, which, in spite of all the restraints imposed on it by morality and decency, is always breaking loose before one can be aware of it. If we reflect a moment, we shall find that even in the present day, on our own stage, the infallible and inexhaustible source of the ludicrous is the same ungovernable impulses of sensuality in collision with higher duties; or cowardice, childish vanity, loquacity, gulosity, laziness, &c. Hence, in the weakness of old age, amorousness is the more laughable, as it is plain that it is not mere animal instinct, but that reason has only served to extend the dominion of the senses beyond their proper limits. In drunkenness, too, the real man places himself, in some degree, in the condition of the comic ideal.
The fact that the Old Comedy introduced living characters on the stage, by name and with all circumstantiality, must not mislead us to infer that they actually did represent certain definite individuals. For such historical characters in the Old Comedy have always an allegorical signification, and represent a class; and as their features were caricatures in the masks, so, in like manner, were their characters in the representation. But still this constant allusion to a proximate reality, which not only allowed the poet, in the character of the chorus, to converse with the public in a general way, but also to point the finger at certain individual spectators, was essential to this species of poetry. As Tragedy delights in harmonious unity, Comedy flourishes in a chaotic exuberance; it seeks out the most motley contrasts, and the unceasing play of cross purposes. It works up, therefore, the most singular, unheard-of, and even impossible incidents, with allusions to the well-known and special circumstances of the immediate locality and time.
The comic poet, as well as the tragic, transports his characters into an ideal element: not, however, into a world subjected to necessity, but one where the caprice of inventive wit rules without check or restraint, and where all the laws of reality are suspended. He is at liberty, therefore, to invent an action as arbitrary and fantastic as possible; it may even be unconnected and unreal, if only it be calculated to place a circle of comic incidents and characters in the most glaring light. In this last respect, the work should, nay, must, have a leading aim, or it will otherwise be in want of keeping; and in this view also the comedies of Aristophanes may be considered as perfectly systematical. But then, to preserve the comic inspiration, this aim must be made a matter of diversion, and be concealed beneath a medley of all sorts of out-of-the- way matters. Comedy at its first commencement, namely, under the hands of its Doric founder, Epicharmus, borrowed its materials chiefly from the mythical world. Even in its maturity, to judge from the titles of many lost plays of Aristophanes and his contemporaries, it does not seem to have renounced this choice altogether, as at a later period, in the interval between the old and new comedy, it returned, for particular reasons, with a natural predilection to mythology. But as the contrast between the matter and form is here in its proper place, and nothing can be more thoroughly opposite to the ludicrous form of exhibition than the most important and serious concerns of men, public life and the state naturally became the peculiar subject-matter of the Old Comedy. It is, therefore, altogether political; and private and family life, beyond which the new never soars, was only introduced occasionally and indirectly, in so far as it might have a reference to public life. The Chorus is therefore essential to it, as being in some sort a representation of the public: it must by no means be considered as a mere accidental property, to be accounted for by the local origin of the Old Comedy; we may assign its existence to a more substantial reason—its necessity for a complete parody of the tragic form. It contributes also to the expression of that festal gladness of which Comedy was the most unrestrained effusion, for in all the national and religious festivals of the Greeks, choral songs, accompanied by dancing, were performed. The comic chorus transforms itself occasionally into such an expression of public joy, as, for instance, when the women who celebrate the Thesmophoriae in the piece that bears that name, in the midst of the most amusing drolleries, begin to chant their melodious hymn, just as in a real festival, in honour of the presiding gods. At these times we meet with such a display of sublime lyric poetry, that the passages may be transplanted into tragedy without any change or alteration whatever. There is, however, this deviation from the tragic model, that there are frequently, in the same comedy, several choruses which sometimes are present together, singing in response, or at other times come on alternately and drop off, without the least general reference to each other. The most remarkable peculiarity, however, of the comic chorus is the Parabasis, an address to the spectators by the chorus, in the name, and as the representative of the poet, but having no connexion with the subject of the piece. Sometimes he enlarges on his own merits, and ridicules the pretensions of his rivals; at other times, availing himself of his right as an Athenian citizen, to speak on public affairs in every assembly of the people, he brings forward serious or ludicrous motions for the common good. The Parabasis must, strictly speaking, be considered as incongruous with the essence of dramatic representation; for in the drama the poet should always be behind his dramatic personages, who again ought to speak and act as if they were alone, and to take no perceptible notice of the spectators. Such intermixtures, therefore, destroy all tragic impression, but to the comic tone these intentional interruptions or intermezzos are welcome, even though they be in themselves more serious than the subject of the representation, because we are at such times unwilling to submit to the constraint of a mental occupation which must perforce be kept up, for then it would assume the appearance of a task or obligation. The Parabasis may partly have owed its invention to the circumstance of the comic poets not having such ample materials as the tragic, for filling up the intervals of the action when the stage was empty, by sympathising and enthusiastic odes. But it is, moreover, consistent with the essence of the Old Comedy, where not merely the subject, but the whole manner of treating it was sportive and jocular. The unlimited dominion of mirth and fun manifests itself even in this, that the dramatic form itself is not seriously adhered to, and that its laws are often suspended; just as in a droll disguise the masquerader sometimes ventures to lay aside the mask. The practice of throwing out allusions and hints to the pit is retained even in the comedy of the present day, and is often found to be attended with great success; although unconditionally reprobated by many critics. I shall afterwards examine how far, and in what departments of comedy, these allusions are admissible.
To sum up in a few words the aim and object of Tragedy and Comedy, we may observe, that as Tragedy, by painful emotions, elevates us to the most dignified views of humanity, being, in the words of Plato, "the imitation of the most beautiful and most excellent life;" Comedy, on the other hand, by its jocose and depreciatory view of all things, calls forth the most petulant hilarity.
Aristophanes—His Character as an Artist—Description and Character of his remaining Works—A Scene, translated from the Acharnae, by way of Appendix.
Of the Old Comedy but one writer has come down to us, and we cannot, therefore, in forming an estimate of his merits, enforce it by a comparison with other masters. Aristophanes had many predecessors, Magnes, Cratinus, Crates, and others; he was indeed one of the latest of this school, for he outlived the Old Comedy. We have no reason, however, to believe that we witness in him its decline, as we do that of Tragedy in the case of the last tragedian; in all probability the Old Comedy was still rising in perfection, and he himself one of its most finished authors. It was very different with the Old Comedy and with Tragedy; the latter died a natural, and the former a violent death. Tragedy ceased to exist, because that species of poetry seemed to be exhausted, because it was abandoned, and because no one was now able to rise to the pitch of its elevation. Comedy was deprived by the hand of power of that unrestrained freedom which was necessary to its existence. Horace, in a few words, informs us of this catastrophe: "After these (Thespis and Aeschylus) followed the Old Comedy, not without great merit; but its freedom degenerated into licentiousness, and into a violence which deserved to be checked by law. The law was enacted, and the Chorus sunk into disgraceful silence as soon as it was deprived of the right to injure." [Footnote: Successit vetus his comedia, non sine multa Laude, sed in vitium libertas excidit, et vim Dignam lege regi: lex est accepta: chorusque Turpiter obticuit, sublato jure nocendi.] Towards the end of the Peloponnesian war, when a few individuals, in violation of the constitution, had assumed the supreme authority in Athens, a law was enacted, giving every person attacked by comic poets a remedy by law. Moreover, the introduction of real persons on the stage, or the use of such masks as bore a resemblance to their features, &c., was prohibited. This gave rise to what is called the Middle Comedy. The form still continued much the same; and the representation, if not perfectly allegorical, was nevertheless a parody. But the essence was taken away, and this species must have become insipid when it could no longer be seasoned by the salt of personal ridicule. Its whole attraction consisted in idealizing jocularly the reality that came nearest home to every one of the spectators, that is, in representing it under the light of the most preposterous perversity; and how was it possible now to lash even the general mismanagement of the state-affairs, if no offence was to be given to individuals? I cannot, therefore, agree with Horace in his opinion that the abuse gave rise to the restriction. The Old Comedy flourished together with Athenian liberty; and both were oppressed under the same circumstances, and by the same persons. So far were the calumnies of Aristophanes from having been the occasion of the death of Socrates, as, without a knowledge of history, many persons have thought proper to assert (for the Clouds were composed a great number of years before), that it was the very same revolutionary despotism that reduced to silence alike the sportive censure of Aristophanes, and also punished with death the graver animadversions of the incorruptible Socrates. Neither do we see that the persecuting jokes of Aristophanes were in any way detrimental to Euripides: the free people of Athens beheld alike with admiration the tragedies of the one, and their parody by the other, represented on the same stage; they allowed every variety of talent to flourish undisturbed in the enjoyment of equal rights. Never did a sovereign, for such was the Athenian people, listen more good-humouredly to the most unwelcome truths, and even allow itself to be openly laughed at. And even if the abuses in the public administration were not by these means corrected, still it was a grand point that this unsparing exposure of them was tolerated. Besides, Aristophanes always shows himself a zealous patriot; the powerful demagogues whom he attacks are the same persons that the grave Thucydides describes as so pernicious. In the midst of civil war, which destroyed for ever the prosperity of Greece, he was ever counselling peace, and everywhere recommended the simplicity and austerity of the ancient manners. So much for the political import of the Old Comedy.
But Aristophanes, I hear it said, was an immoral buffoon. Yes, among other things, he was that also; and we are by no means disposed to justify the man who, with such great talents, could yet sink so very low, whether it was to gratify his own coarse propensities, or from a supposed necessity of winning the favour of the populace, that he might be able to tell them bold and unpleasant truths. We know at least that he boasts of having been much more sparing than his rivals in the use of obscene jests, to gain the laughter of the mob, and of having, in this respect, carried his art to perfection. Not to be unjust towards him, we must judge of all that appears so repulsive to us, not by modern ideas, but by the opinions of his own age and nation. On certain subjects the morals of the ancients were very different from ours, and of a much freer character. This arose from the very nature of their religion, which was a real worship of Nature, and had sanctioned many public customs grossly injurious to decency. Besides, from the very retired manner in which the women lived, [Footnote: This brings us to the consideration of the question so much agitated by antiquaries, whether the Grecian women were present at the representation of plays in general, and more especially of comedies. With respect to tragedy, I think the question must be answered in the affirmative, since the story about the Eumenides of Aeschylus could not have been invented with any degree of propriety, had women never visited the theatre. Moreover, there is a passage in Plato (De Leg., lib. ii. p. 658, D.), in which he mentions the predilection educated women evince for tragical composition. Lastly, Julius Pollux, among the technical expressions belonging to the theatre, mentions the Greek word for a spectatress. But in the case of the old comedy, I should be inclined to think that they were not present. However, its indecency alone does not appear to be a decisive proof. Even in the religious festivals the eyes of the women must have been exposed to sights of gross indecency. But in the numerous addresses of Aristophanes to the spectators, even where he distinguishes them according to their respective ages and otherwise, we never observe any mention of spectatresses, and the poet would hardly have omitted the opportunity which this afforded him for some witticism or joke. The only passage with which I am acquainted, whence any conclusion may be drawn in favour of the presence of women, is Pax, v. 963-967. But still it remains doubtful, and I recommend it to the consideration of the critic.—AUTHOR.], while the men were almost constantly together, the language of conversation contracted a certain coarseness, as is always the case under similar circumstances. In modern Europe, since the origin of chivalry, women have given the tone to social life, and to the respectful homage which we yield to them, we owe the prevalence of a nobler morality in conversation, in the fine arts, and in poetry. Besides, the ancient comic writers, who took the world as they found it, had before their eyes a very great degree of corruption of morals.
The most honourable testimony in favour of Aristophanes is that of the sage Plato, who in an epigram says, that the Graces chose his soul for their abode, who was constantly reading him, and transmitted the Clouds, (this very play, in which, with the meshes of the sophists, philosophy itself, and even his master Socrates, was attacked), to Dionysius the elder, with the remark, that from it he would be best able to understand the state of things at Athens. He could hardly mean merely that the play was a proof of the unbridled democratic freedom which prevailed in Athens; but must have intended it as an acknowledgment of the poet's profound knowledge of the world, and his insight into the whole machinery of the civil constitution. Plato has also admirably characterised him in his Symposium, where he puts into his mouth a speech on love, which Aristophanes, far from every thing like high enthusiasm, considers merely in a sensual view. His description of it is, however, equally bold and ingenious.
We might apply to the pieces of Aristophanes the motto of a pleasant and acute adventurer in Goethe: "Mad, but clever." In them we are best enabled to conceive why the Dramatic Art in general was consecrated to Bacchus: it is the intoxication of poetry, the Bacchanalia of fun. This faculty will at times assert its rights as well as others; and hence several nations have set apart certain festivals, such as Saturnalia, Carnivals, &c., in which the people may give themselves altogether up to frolicsome follies, that when once the fit is over, they may for the rest of the year remain quiet, and apply themselves to serious business. The Old Comedy is a general masquerade of the world, during which much passes that is not authorised by the ordinary rules of propriety; but during which much also that is diverting, witty, and even instructive, is manifested, which would never be heard of without this momentary breaking up of the barricades of precision.
However vulgar and even corrupt Aristophanes may have been in his own personal propensities, and however offensive his jokes are to good manners and good taste, we cannot deny to him, both in the general plan and execution of his poems, the praise of carefulness, and the masterly skill of a finished artist. His language is extremely polished, the purest Atticism reigns in it throughout, and with the greatest dexterity he adapts it to every tone, from the most familiar dialogue up to the high elevation of the Dithyrambic ode. We cannot doubt that he would have been eminently successful in grave poetry, when we see how at times with capricious wantonness he lavishes it only to destroy at the next moment the impression he has made. The elegant choice of the language becomes only the more attractive from the contrast in which it is occasionally displayed by him; for he not only indulges at times in the rudest expressions of the people, the different dialects, and even in the broken Greek of barbarians, but he extends the same arbitrary power which he exercised over nature and human affairs, to language itself, and by composition, allusion to names of persons, or imitation of particular sounds, coins the strangest words imaginable. The structure of his versification is not less artificial than that of the tragedians; he uses the same forms, but differently modified: his object is ease and variety, instead of gravity and dignity; but amidst all this apparent irregularity, he still adheres with great accuracy to the laws of metrical composition. As Aristophanes, in the exercise of his separate but infinitely varied and versatile art, appears to me to have displayed the richest development of almost every poetical talent, so also whenever I read his works I am no less astonished at the extraordinary capacity of his hearers, which the very nature of them presupposes. We might, indeed, expect from the citizens of a popular government an intimate acquaintance with the history and constitution of their country, with public events and transactions, with the personal circumstance of all their contemporaries of any note or consequence. But besides all this, Aristophanes required of his auditory a cultivated poetical taste; to understand his parodies, they must have almost every word of the tragical master-pieces by heart. And what quickness of perception was requisite to catch, in passing the lightest and most covert irony, the most unexpected sallies and strangest allusions, which are frequently denoted by the mere twisting of a syllable! We may boldly affirm, that notwithstanding all the explanations which have come down to us—notwithstanding the accumulation of learning which has been spent upon it, one-half of the wit of Aristophanes is altogether lost to the moderns. Nothing but the incredible acuteness and vivacity of the Athenian intellect could make it conceivable that these comedies which, with all their farcical drolleries, do, nevertheless, all the while bear upon the most grave interests of human life, could ever have formed a source of popular amusement. We may envy the poet who could reckon on so clever and accomplished a public; but this was in truth a very dangerous advantage. Spectators whose understandings were so quick, would not be easily pleased. Thus Aristophanes complains of the too fastidious taste of the Athenians, with whom the most admired of his predecessors were immediately out of favour as soon as the slightest trace of a falling off in their mental powers was perceivable. On the other hand, he allows that the other Greeks could not bear the slightest comparison with them in a knowledge of the Dramatic Art. Even genius in this department strove to excel at Athens, and here, too, the competition was confined within the narrow period of a few festivals, during which the people always expected to see something new, of which there was always a plentiful supply. The prizes (on which all depended, there being no other means of gaining publicity) were distributed after a single representation. We may easily imagine, therefore, the state of perfection to which this would be carried under the directing care of the poet. If we also take into consideration the high state of the co-operating arts, the utmost distinctness of delivery (both in speaking and singing,) of the most finished poetry, as well as the magnificence and vast size of the theatre, we shall then have some idea of a theatrical treat, the like of which has never since been offered to the world.